This is not your parents’ River District, say supporters of a ballot measure that aims to raise property taxes across much of the Western Slope. Proponents claim the district is interested in more than just agriculture and storage, but opponents worry that the district, armed with a new source of revenue, intends to build more dams and reservoirs.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District is asking voters this election season for a half-mill property-tax increase through ballot measure 7A. That works out to an extra $1.90 per year for every $100,000 of residential home value and would raise nearly $5 million annually for the organization.
The ballot question tells voters that the money will be used for fighting to keep water on the Western Slope, protecting water supplies for Western Slope farmers and ranchers, protecting drinking water for Western Slope communities, and protecting fish, wildlife and recreation. There is no sunset date on the tax increase.
According to numbers provided by the River District, the mill levy would increase to $40.28 from $18.93 annually for Pitkin County’s median home value, which at $1.13 million is the highest in the district. In Eagle County, the mill levy would increase from $11.11 annually to $23.63 for where the median home value, which is $660,979.
The proposal has broad support among many entities — environmental groups, recreation organizations, chambers of commerce and agricultural water users, among others — that in the past would have been seen as strange bedfellows.
That’s not the case anymore, said River District general manager Andy Mueller. Long seen as an advocate for and protector of agricultural water use on the Western Slope, the Glenwood Springs-based River District now takes a more balanced approach to treat all water users equally, he said.
“When you talk about water use, oftentimes people think about diversion from the stream, but the reality is our communities and our economies use our water in all different ways and there’s a whole economic engine behind the recreation industry and tourism industry that is so critical to the West Slope,” he said.
The district and its supporters are hoping this more inclusive approach will help them win votes across the vast 15-county region of western Colorado, which spans Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Gunnison, Garfield, Rio Blanco, Routt, Moffat Mesa, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, Hinsdale and Saguache counties.
Created by the state legislature in 1937, the River District is charged with developing and protecting water supplies in western Colorado.
The district’s traditional focus on agricultural water users makes sense, because that’s who owns most of the Western Slope’s oldest — and, therefore, most powerful — water rights. But as western Colorado continues its shift to an outdoor-recreation and tourism-based economy, supporters of 7A agree with Mueller that the River District’s focus is shifting with it.
Matt Rice, director of American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program, said 7A is an opportunity for the River District to become more accountable to environmental and recreation interests. According to the Colorado secretary of state website, American Rivers has given about $93,000 to Yes on 7A, the committee supporting and funding the measure.
“We are hoping the River District’s focus broadens and includes more environmental and recreational priorities,” Rice said. “It’s a huge step in the right direction for the River District. It’s not at the expense of agriculture or other water users; it’s broadening their constituency to make (the River District) more accountable to more water users in the basin.”
The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association has donated $100,000 to Yes on 7A, and other environmental organizations, including Western Resource Advocates, The Nature Conservancy and Conservation Colorado, have also given smaller amounts of money.
In the world of Colorado water planning, the River District plays an important and influential role in shaping policy by fighting to keep water on the Western Slope. But its financial might has lagged behind its political clout.
“I think the River District really does a good job to keep the water on the Western Slope and keep it in our economy, and the dollar amount they have to do that is just miniscule,” said River District board member and Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler Henry, who is also vice chair of Yes on 7A. “It is such a shoestring operation.”
The River District’s budget for 2020 was $4.1 million. Ninety-seven percent of that comes from property taxes.
The district has seen its revenue stream decline in recent years due to shrinking tax revenue from the fossil-fuel industry and lower residential assessments as a result of the state’s Gallagher and Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights amendments. As a result, the district has reduced its staff by four positions, suspended its grant program and reduced its vehicle fleet.
In 2017, the district received 34 grant requests for more than $1.3 million, which was nine times more than the $150,000 available.
By using savings carved out from the capital fund, in 2018 and 2019, the district was able to contribute $50,000 to a White River storage project study, $20,000 to Pilot Rock emergency ditch repair near Crawford, $40,000 to an algae study on the White River and $40,000 for aquatic nuisance-species prevention at Ruedi Reservoir. It has also budgeted $25,000 for the Windy Gap Bypass Project, which would create a new channel for the Colorado River around Windy Gap Reservoir in Grand County.
The River District’s fiscal implementation plan for the revenue that would be raised by the tax hike says 86% would go toward funding water projects backed by roundtables and local communities. Those projects would fall into five categories: productive agriculture; infrastructure; healthy rivers; watershed health and water quality; and conservation and efficiency.
River District staff would recommend projects to the board, and the board would decide which projects receive funding. This process would take the place of the district’s competitive grant program, which it discontinued at the end of 2017 because of a lack of funding.
“We have partners throughout the district who have proposed projects or have approached us about projects they would like to pursue, and we are certainly able to provide technical or legal advice or advocacy work for them, but we can’t help them get the project off the ground from a financial perspective today,” Mueller said.
Pitkin County opposition
But some worry that these River District-funded projects will mostly consist of developing storage — dam and reservoir — projects. While several counties, including Summit, Eagle, Garfield and Delta, have formally endorsed 7A, Pitkin County commissioners last month passed a resolution opposing the measure. John Ely, Pitkin County’s representative to the River District board, also voted no in July against putting the tax increase to voters, saying that the ballot language is not tied to the fiscal implementation plan, so there’s no guarantee the district will use the money in the ways it says it will.
Pitkin County and the River District have a long, contentious history when it comes to water projects, especially with regard to a district-led dam and reservoir project on the Crystal River, which landed the county and the district on opposing sides in water court. The district eventually abandoned the project and the water rights tied to it. Ely had hoped the district would commit to constraints on spending the new tax revenue to ensure disputes such as this wouldn’t happen in the future.
“There’s nothing wrong with differences of opinion, but when it comes time to ask for money, I’m not going to support them taking money out of our pocket to potentially do things that are not in our interest or the interest of the causes we support,” he said.
Ely is also skeptical of the River District’s supposed shift to focus on environmental issues. If the past is any indication of the future, he doesn’t buy it. Storage has always been the district’s orientation, he said.
“They’re saying, well, we would like a big tax increase and we will spend it on these four things, which includes anything and everything basically,” Ely said. “They can stay in their traditional point of orientation or they can expand more into environmental concerns and streamflow issues. Who knows. But I’ve never seen it in the past.”
Headwaters counties vs. population center
To get 7A passed, supporters have to navigate a complicated political landscape.
Pitkin County contributed $723,429 to the River District budget in 2020, the most of all 15 counties, because of sky-high property values in its resort communities. Eagle County contributed the second-most, $688,360.
But even though Pitkin County contributes the most River District revenue, 7A doesn’t necessarily need the support of Pitkin County voters to pass. Pitkin County has roughly 12,600 active voters. Supporters of 7A will have to win over Mesa County, which is home to the Western Slope’s population center of Grand Junction and 94,700 active voters.
A districtwide survey last spring found that about 63% of those surveyed said they would support a River District tax increase. That number was just 59% in Mesa County.
“It’s all about Mesa County,” Ely said. “That’s where the bulk of the population in the district is and that’s where the vote will be decided one way or the other.”
Steve Acquafresca, Mesa County’s representative on the River District board and a former Mesa County commissioner, agreed.
“How it goes in Mesa County, so it goes in the end,” he said. “And Delta and Montrose (counties) almost invariably vote the way Mesa County does on natural resource issues.”
Passing 7A in Mesa County could be challenging. Acquafresca said there is a contingency of tax-averse Mesa County voters who would vote no on any proposal to increase taxes. And the COVID-19 pandemic has made it hard for board members to campaign for the measure.
“I’ve been minimizing my contact with others,” Acquafresca said. “Most of us on the board are of an age that puts us in a vulnerable group to the coronavirus.”
In an era when climate change is robbing the Colorado River of streamflows and water shortages are becoming increasingly common, 7A supporters say this is the time to come together to fund a common interest. Rice said he hopes Pitkin County can put aside its differences with the River District and help solve bigger Colorado River issues.
“American Rivers has also been in water court with the River District on opposite sides,” Rice said. “We have not always been a close friend and partner of the River District. But we, as an organization, have put that history aside and we’re working together to get something very important done.”
This story ran in the Oct. 9 edition of The Vail Daily, the Oct. 12 edition of The Summit Daily and the Oct. 19 edition of The Aspen Times.